Washington — President-elect Donald Trump will tap former U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to lead the Department of Transportation in his incoming administration, according to multiple media reports
Chao, 63, who served under former President George W. Bush, would become U.S. Secretary of Transportation at a time when federal regulators are scrambling to craft new rules for self-driving cars as automakers and tech companies race to develop the new technology.
The transportation department will also be involved in a review of federally mandated fuel economy standards that is scheduled to take place in 2018. Automakers have been pushing the Trump administration to roll back a mandate from outgoing President Barack Obama’s administration that requires them to achieve a fleetwide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025.
Chao, who is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), led the Labor Department for the full eight years Bush was in office. She formerly was Deputy U.S. Secretary of Transportation and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.
McConnell told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday that he will not recuse himself from a potential vote on Chao’s nomination, despite his close ties. “I think it was an outstanding choice,” he said.
Chao has also been chief executive officer of United Way of America and director of the Peace Corps. She worked as vice president of syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group and as a banker with Citicorp in New York.
Democrats expressed an openness to Chao’s appointment, which must be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) expressed a willingness to work with Trump’s administration on transportation issues.
“Senate Democrats have said that if President-elect Trump is serious about a major infrastructure bill, backed by real dollars and not just tax credits and without cutting other programs like health care and education, that we are ready to work with his administration,” Schumer said in a statement. “I hope Secretary Chao shares that ambitious goal and is willing to work with Democrats to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of good paying jobs along the way.”
One group that lobbies for car manufacturers in Washington, meanwhile, praised Trump for the selection of Chao to lead the transportation department, citing her previous federal government experience in the Bush administration.
Mitch Bainwol, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said “the combination of (Chao’s) prior cabinet experience, her specific knowledge of DOT and her extensive policy background makes her a uniquely qualified nominee who can literally hit the ground running.”
The auto alliance group represents Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., BMW Group, Jaguar Land Rover, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz USA, Mitsubishi Motors, Porsche, Toyota, Volkswagen Group of America and Volvo Car USA.
The Association of Global Automakers Statement added: “Elaine Chao will become transportation secretary during an unprecedented wave of automotive innovation that is redefining how we think about transportation. We congratulate her and look forward to working together to support technologies that will save lives, time and fuel on our roadways.”
The global automakers group includes Aston Martin, Ferrari, Honda, Hyundai, Isuzu, Kia, Maserati, McLaren, Nissan, Subaru, Suzuki and Toyota.
Safety advocates questioned whether Chao would try to roll back consumer protections put in place under the Obama administration, citing her work as a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“My biggest concern is that she probably comes from the point of view that all regulations ought to be undone,” said John Simpson, privacy project director at the Santa Monica, California-based Consumer Watchdog group.
Chao would be the second woman picked for Trump’s Cabinet, joining Michigan GOP mega-donor and philanthropist Betsy DeVos, tapped by the president-elect be his education secretary. Trump also selected South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be his U.N. Ambassador, but that post is not a Cabinet-level position.
Chao, who was born in Taiwan, will also give Trump’s Cabinet another boost of diversity. Critics pointed out that many of Trump’s initial high-level picks prior to Haley and DeVos were white men.
Trump has said he is considering appointing Detroit native Dr. Ben Carson to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Chao would be the 18th Transportation Secretary in U.S. history, and the third woman. She would follow Elizabeth Dole, who served under President Ronald Reagan, and Mary Peters, who served under George W. Bush.